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Political nature of rating by S&P raises eyebrows; Experts note agency has been wrong before

The S&P downgrade of the United States' credit rating was more of a statement on the toxic political landscape in Washington than a comment on the nation's ability to pay its bills. But S&P has its own checkered history. Just a few years ago, the company gave its top triple-A rating to some of the mortgage-backed securities that helped cause the Great Recession.

Could it be wrong again?

New York-based Standard & Poor's was upfront about its focus on the political angle, citing the long standoff between President Obama and Congress as a key factor in its unprecedented downgrade of the government's credit rating.

"We think the debacle over raising the debt ceiling is one illustration of that," John Chambers, head of S&P's debt rating committee, said on Monday. He said that the political gridlock and S&P's analysis of a rising U.S. debt burden in coming years prompted the downgrade.

But is the rating agency qualified to make political as well as economic judgments?

"We didn't need a rating agency to tell us that we need a balanced, long-term approach to deficit reduction. That was true last week. That was true last year. That was true the day I took office," Obama said Monday in his first remarks on the subject since the downgrade. "And we didn't need a rating agency to tell us that the gridlock in Washington over the last several months has not been constructive, to say the least."

But, he said, Washington has the power to fix its own political dysfunction. Furthermore, Obama asserted, "No matter what some agency may say, we've always been and always will be a triple-A country."

Making its own judgments, Wall Street dumped stocks all day long.

Some lawmakers and economists have questioned whether the ratings agencies have the competence to evaluate the country's finances, based on their own performance prior to the 2008-2009 financial crisis.

S&P predicated its downgrade "on the theory that Washington might deliberately refuse to pay its debt because of a political impasse. But I don't know what makes them experts at this," said Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., a member of the House Financial Services Committee.

Leading up to the financial meltdown in 2008, S&P and its sister credit-rating agencies gave coveted AAA ratings to some of the very mortgage-backed securities that later became nearly worthless, leading to staggering losses for many investors and funds. Also, the rating agencies had awarded top ratings to some of the financial firms that failed.

That gave them a black eye, and some analysts have suggested the S&P downgrade of U.S. debt was partly an effort to restore some of the lost confidence in the agencies' ratings.

Stephen Hess, a former presidential adviser and a senior fellow emeritus in governance studies at the Brookings Institution, said S&P's political discourse caught him by surprise.

"It suggests either that those of us on the outside either don't understand what rating services do, or that there's a new style there," Hess said. "I felt I was reading a political judgment from an organization that I expected only gave financial judgments or economic judgments. It went well beyond the question of data."

The other two major credit-ratings agencies, Moody's Investor Service and Fitch ratings, also have warned of downgrades. But they have not joined S&P in doing so -- for now.

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